July 23, 2015, by Warren Pearce

Who is responsible for GM moths?

Photo by David McClenaghan, CSIROThis is a joint post with Sarah Hartley, Making Science Public Research Fellow

What is the role of the public in science? Should public concerns about scientific innovation be taken into account when regulating new technologies? Are some types of concerns more valid than others? These are fundamental questions about the governance of innovation, and the answers we choose will go a long way to determining the kind of relationship science will have with wider society in the future. One innovation that hit the headlines this week, the genetically modified (GM) diamondback moth, provides an insight into how we currently manage responsibility in research and innovation.

GM moths: replacing pesticides?

GM moths ‘can curb pest invasion’. So reported the BBC last week on the development of the GM diamondback moth by researchers at Oxitec and Cornell University. The report focuses on a new scientific paper on the moth, but also notes that the US government’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has already approved the moths for release in New York State, following a public consultation on the matter. Here, we dig deeper into that public consultation, and explore how concerns raised by the public were dealt with.

As the BBC article notes, the diamondback moth is a common agricultural pest of many commercially grown crops such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. As pesticide use has increased since the 1940s, so natural predators of the moth have been eliminated, enabling it to cause increasing amounts of agricultural and economic damage. Attempts to control the moth have involved even more use of pesticides, but concerns over increasing resistance to pesticides and the impact of pesticides on human health and the environment led scientists to search for alternative pest control methods. The British company Oxitec Ltd has developed a GM diamondback moth that results in the death of female moths during the larvae stage. In 2013, Cornell University applied to APHIS to release the GM moth in order to test its effectiveness as an agricultural pest management tool. The following year an APHIS report found that releasing the moth was unlikely to cause significant impacts on the physical, biological and human health environments.

Asking the public…

Next, APHIS asked the public for its views, inviting comments by post or through an online portal. The online part of the consultation prompted numerous comments from 287 participants, including one with 19,869 signatures, raising both hopes and concerns about the technology and Cornell’s plans for an experimental release. The numbers involved suggest significant public interest in the moth.

The public overwhelmingly wanted to address matters related to governance (67% of comments) of the GM insect with relatively little interest in environmental risks (20%) and human health risks (4%). Most of these governance issues centred on the acceptability of risk, trust and legitimacy, and the close relationship between regulators and industry. However, APHIS’s remit only covers matters related to environment and human health, so the governance issues that most excited the public could not be addressed or considered in the decision on whether to release the moth.

In November 2014, APHIS issued a permit to Cornell enabling it to release the moths into the environment. It also published a document addressing the results of the public consultation in which it ignored all those public comments that fell outside its remit.

…but what happens to their answers?

Years of social science research, and a healthy dose of common sense, tells us that the ‘public’, that is all those who are not recognised experts, are interested in a broader range of issues than those related to the human health and environmental risks. Risk assessors tell us that it’s called a ‘public consultation’ because it’s ‘open’ and therefore ‘made public’, but this just doesn’t wash. A public consultation needs to allow members of the public to have a voice and raise issues that are of concern to them. Anything less, renders the term ‘public consultation’ misleading. In APHIS’s consultation on GM moths, the public were allowed to speak, but only within very narrow boundaries. When they strayed outside of these boundaries, their concerns were discarded. Unsurprisingly, these types of science-based public consultations are ‘tokens’ and have minimal impact on risk assessment.

We do not dispute the potential benefits of the GM diamondback moth and are not opposed to the technology. Our concern is the way in which public input is side-lined and public debate muted. In a model of responsible science, these concerns about governance need to be heard, particularly if the public are invited to contribute. It seems pointless to invite public comments and yet not allow the public to discuss the matters that concern them the most.

‘Responsible science’ within the university

What makes this particular case more interesting is that Cornell University, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Dr. Shelton announced last month that despite having the permit to release the insects into the environment, they will take the more cautious path of caged releases. This unexpected decision was based on their commitment to what they described as ‘responsible science’ and Dr Shelton provides a link to the public comments from the consultation on his lab’s webpage.

GM insects are on the agenda in Europe as they are in the U.S. – there is little doubt that a GM insect will be the first GM animal released in Europe – and Europeans will be invited to participate in science-based public consultations. We urge risk managers and researchers to reflect on any public concerns that might be raised, and address them responsibly rather than dismiss them. This story is far from over but at present it suggests universities may be well placed to respond to public input, raising questions about where responsibility for science lies in a democratic society.

Posted in biotechnologyGMOsinnovationpublicsresponsible innovationresponsive research